The Swan (And Edgar) Song Of The Department Store
I’ve always loved big department stores. As a kid brought up in Gamages, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Marshall & Snellgrove, Derry & Toms and the rest I loved the order and regimentation of such institutions.
Seeking them out in other countries I fell in love with New York’s Bloomingdales, with its platoons of knowledgeable old ladies. In LA’s Fred Segal I asked for a pair of trousers which weren’t in stock. I went back 18 months later and the assistant saw me passing and said, ‘Your pants are in.’
In Tokyo I’ve watched morning meetings between management and floorwalkers which are like motivational prayer groups, and am amazed as staff literally run across the shop floor with their arms stiffly by their sides like riverdancers, so eager are they to serve. In London it’s the opposite, with bored disinterested staff pretending they haven’t seen you, while in Spain’s El Cort Inglés (the English cut, or style) they combine all these ingredients to be a polite, knowledgeable cross between fashion, homewares and gourmet fresh food that makes Wholefoods look like a run-down branch of the Co-Op.
But the grand old departments stores that I grew up with – as seen in episodes of ‘The Avengers’ and in Norman Wisdom’s ‘Trouble In Store’ – were so hierarchical and institutionalised that many failed to adapt to the changing times. The odiously greedy Phillip Green managed to destroy the British Home Stores, DH Evans has gone from Oxford Street, Selfridges now caters solely to rich tasteless Russians and even the beloved John Lewis is suffering.
It’s not just about home deliveries taking over. The department stores are making themselves disposable when they should be indispensable. El Cort Inglés is an essential part of Spanish life. I’ll go in there for a lightbulb and invariably come out with kitchen gadgets. It’s crowded with produce but strangely orderly. The staff are always nearby but never pushy; it’s an enjoyable experience.
In Japan I bought a stereo speaker and the staff brought out their boss to personally thank me for my purchase. This art of being made to feel special can be made unique to the department store. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t become relevant and essential again. It depends on whether the next generation rediscovers the delights of talking to experts about purchases or prefers to click through online. I suspect they’d rather the latter, as it does not involve human contact.